Crowsnest council debates rent rates

·6 min read

Crowsnest Pass councillors engaged in a lengthy discussion concerning rent rates for municipal facilities during the Nov. 17 council meeting.

In 2018, a standard annual fee for renting the MDM Community Centre was set for all new and existing leases. That rate was set for $6.61 per square foot for 2020.

In order to level the playing field throughout the municipality, council determined during its Jan. 14, 2020 governance and priorities committee meeting to apply the $6.61 rate as an annual fee to all organizations renting municipal facilities. Administration was directed to contact each affected group before standardizing the rates, and a five-year time frame for groups to work up to the $6.61 rate was established.

Mayor Blair Painter brought the issue back for council’s discussion after the Crowsnest Pass Pistol Club contacted him with concerns over the expected increase to its rental rates for the Elks Hall in Blairmore. The club is currently negotiating a new lease with the municipality.

The club’s rental rate was set at $1.70 per square foot for 2017, 2018 and 2019.

To reach the standard $6.61 rate within the established time frame, the pistol club would be required to increase its annual rate payment by $1,800 a year to an annual rental fee that would amount to about $13,000.

“I think it was our intention that we all agreed that we needed to come up with an even playing field for everybody, but I don’t think we need to go to today’s standard commercial rates for renting in the Crowsnest Pass,” Mayor Painter said. “These are not groups that are commercial. They’re not selling goods, they’re not making a profit.”

Expecting the pistol club to reach the standardized rate within five years was unreasonable, he continued, and would put additional stress on the club’s finances since it wasn't able to collect any revenue from its annual guns show. Though the club’s reserves will cover costs this year, long-term operations with the increased rent would require doubling its $100 membership fee.

Not all of council, however, was overly concerned with the prospect of pistol club members facing increased dues.

“In order for my children to play hockey, I pay $400 a child to use the facility in the municipality that is subsidized by the taxpayer,” Coun. Lisa Sygutek said. “It’s not really fair for kids’ families to be paying $400 to play a sport and then a group of adult people paying $100. I have a bit of a problem with that.”

She suggested the pistol club could take a page out of the minor hockey association’s play book and apply for casino shifts or fundraise in other ways.

Expecting the club to jump from about $3,000 a year in rent to $13,000, she continued, was also an issue.

“I also have a problem with the fact that we’re going to throw it down and say you gotta pay $13,000. That’s a big number,” she said.

As such, Coun. Sygutek said the pistol club could come before council to ask for assistance in addition to whatever fundraising efforts it secured on its own.

Such an arrangement, said manager of community services Trent Smith, had always been part of the intention behind the rental rate, and the five-year time frame was meant to be a flexible target to aim for.

“Administration in no means was trying to shove a five-year lease down their throat,” he said. “If they needed to come to council and ask for 10 years, we would happily sit down and ask council and decide that.”

As part of those discussions, Mr. Smith continued, the topic of fundraising was brought up, as well as looking at what financial options other small-town gun clubs pursued.

“At no time was administration saying, ‘Hey, you must.’ We were saying, ‘Hey, if this doesn't work, we’ll come back and talk to council. And then communication went dead,” said Mr. Smith.

Though certainly a jump from the pistol club’s $1.70 rate, Coun. Dean Ward said the $6.61 amount was agreed upon earlier in the year by council because about half of the community groups were paying rental fees near $6 a square foot. The pistol group’s rent, he added, had also been largely unchanged for close to 20 years.

“If we cut these rates, we’re going to have to come up with $30,000 from somewhere else,” said Coun. Ward. “I have no problem phasing somebody in over time, but these groups are all earning, they’re all begging for money, they’re all working hard … selling vegetables, selling chocolates, to pay their bills.

“It’s a sad situation when nine groups are paying one rate and one group is paying 20 per cent of that rate.”

Beyond the pistol club’s concerns, Coun. Dave Filipuzzi expressed concern that the current rent arrangement would add financial strain to community groups already grappling with fallout from the pandemic.

“If we continue to stress these groups out, we won’t have them. I think it’s fairly important we find a way to solve this problem; it’s good to accommodate these groups to stay a part of our community and be part of our community. I don’t want to lose these groups, any one of them,” he said.

Expecting every group to conform to one amount, added Coun. Doreen Glavin, was also unfair.

“Different groups have different resources in order for them to run and operate, and it isn't fair to say we’re going to standardize,” she said. “I think it comes down to what each group ... has for resources themselves in order to operate or pay for leases.”

Backtracking on the $6.61 rate to accommodate groups, Coun. Sygutek responded, was the right way to respond.

“We accepted that, we agreed with it. We can’t go back now and say, ‘Hey, you know, we made a mistake,’ and go to every one of those groups and lower their rent. I don’t think that’s an option,” said Coun. Sygutek. “But I do think it’s an option for them to come to us and ask for funding help.”

Council eventually accepted two motions: the first directed administration to reach out to the Crowsnest Pass Pistol Club and see what options could be arranged for the $6.61 rate to be eventually met, and the second directed administration to notify the other nine groups paying the rate to approach council for assistance if they are facing financial hardships.

The second motion, said Coun. Marlene Anctil, was especially important.

“There are a lot of groups that we don’t know the positions they’re in right now who are struggling, so let’s notify every group and see what comes back to us,” she said.

Sean Oliver, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Shootin' the Breeze